ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The pandemic, for me, is coming to an end not with a bang, not with a whimper, not with fireworks or Champagne or parties where no one is socially distanced but with a particular song from “The Wizard of Oz.”
I’ve always referred to this song as “We’re Out of the Woods,” which as the name implies accompanies the scene in which Dorothy and her posse safely emerge from the dark and spooky woods crawling with lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!
You know the lyrics. You’re likely hearing them in your head right now as sung by a chorus of bubbly sopranos:
“You’re out of the woods
You’re out of the dark
You’re out of the night
Step into the sun
Step into the light …”
And so on.
The song, actually titled “Optimistic Voices,” is a celebration of surviving something perilous and crossing into a place more hopeful, brighter, better. In “The Wizard of Oz,” that place is a glorious field of poppies with the Emerald City on the horizon.
In this post-pandemic world, that place is our old pre-pandemic world, the one where we hugged and visited and wore masks only on Halloween and didn’t fear the worst every time we coughed or couldn’t taste our food.
The one where we could see one another smile.
We longed for the day when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could tell us that thanks to science and enough of us getting vaccinated, we could now walk maskless into the sun, with some provisions.
That day came May 13.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities … without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
President Joe Biden put it simply: “Well, today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus.”
But that’s where the simplicity ended.
The CDC guidelines came with many caveats, limits and murky areas. They aren’t specific about schools, and they still advise wearing masks while riding public transit, while flying or visiting hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, prisons or jails.
And then there are local rules that may differ from the federal guidelines, not to mention the decisions by businesses, event centers and workplaces.
In New Mexico, the guidelines are fairly compliant with the CDC but do specify that masks are still required at schools.
If you haven’t been vaccinated, then none of this applies to you. You should still wear a mask – unless you’re in a state that has already tossed science and caution to the wind.
But a week and a half after pandemic protocols were loosened, many of us remain uptight about how safe it is to come out of the woods and into the light without a mask.
“It is too early to take off the masks,” one friend said. “There are still too many refusing the vaccine. We don’t know what the variants are going to do. Masks are the best defense against aerosol exposures.”
Joanna, a friend who is a nurse, agreed.
“I will continue to mask in public and social distance because the vaccine can protect me from COVID, but it cannot protect me from stupid/selfish people,” she said. “Besides, I’m saving money on lipstick.”
And folks, she wears some killer lipstick.
This week I ventured out to get an unscientific sense of things at a few locations – Home Depot, Whole Foods, an early voting center, Smith’s. Each place, more people were masked than bare-faced.
I wore my mask at each stop, and I suppose it was partly because I was unsure of the rules at those particular places and partly because I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of those people.
Which is to say, people who all along have viewed a piece of cloth as a sign of weakness, a socialist ploy, an attack on freedom.
Often those people are the same ones who decry vaccines, refusing to believe that by not taking their shots they are a risk to others and themselves. They are like someone named Colette, who posted this on Facebook:
“Now that you’ve had your shots, you are a bio-weapon and will pass poisons … God knows what … to everyone around you. It was never a vaccine. It’s a genetic experiment and you and others are the lab rats. Good luck.”
My mask has been like a badge, a symbol that I was not like Colette, that I am safe and sane enough not to fall for conspiracy theories on social media. That I care enough about myself, my family, my fellow human beings to get vaccinated and believe science.
That dichotomy of thought is at the center of our discomfort with shedding our masks. We are too distrustful of one another to be on an honor system. Without a mask, we not only lose a defense we have against the virus; we lose the ability to discern whether someone is friend or foe. A mask is both flag and shield.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy runs with the others through that glorious field of poppies when it begins to snow, but the snow is a bewitching poison that knocks her out.
She survives, of course, and eventually she makes it home.
We all want to make it home, but we also want to make it out into the light, freely and without fear, like we did before the pandemic shut it all down.
But it will take some time before I will feel confident that the Wicked Witch of the COVID is dead or at least not as big a threat as she and her unvaccinated flying monkeys have been.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jolinegkg on Twitter.